‘The stroke terrified me. I thought I’d die on the plane’
Chris Tarrant tells Georgia Humphreys about travelling on the world’s railways, filming in dreadful conditions ... and coming close to death
There’s a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? catchphrase Chris Tarrant expects to hear every day. “I haven’t been out of my house yet this morning, but I know before teatime somebody will say, ‘Phone a friend, Chris, phone a friend’,” says the 71-year-old.
After all, Tarrant spent a mighty 15 years hosting the ITV quiz, in which contestants battled through a series of questions to try and win the enormous cash prize. Since the show last aired in 2014, though, his career has gone off on a very different, well, track.
Ahead of a fourth series of Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys, we hear more about the TV presenter’s train travels — and his life off-screen, too.
From Buenos Aires to Alaska, Japan to Australia, Tarrant has ventured thousands of miles to film the intriguing Channel 5 documentary show. What inspires him to continue making new episodes?
“I don’t need to work and my family are all saying, ‘Dad, why don’t you just retire?’,” he divulges. “And I say, ‘No, because I want to do just enough work a year’, you know, to keep my brain working. You need to do something.”
It seems Tarrant didn’t necessarily anticipate its longevity.
“It’s weird, like everything in my life it was never supposed to last this long. I was still doing Millionaire and they said, ‘Do you fancy filming some railways?, and I said, ‘Yeah, actually. I’ve lived in studios for about 20 years of my life, so it would be nice to get out again’. “And then I suppose, it’s just built and built and built. It seems very popular.” Reading-born Tarrant, who first found fame in the 1970s hosting ITV children’s show Tiswas, wanted to visit locations “closer to home” this time around. But upon arriving in Morocco to shoot the first episode, the star and his crew faced pretty extreme conditions. “We checked the temperature one day on the car temperature gauge — 54 degrees,” he exclaims. “I have never filmed in 54 degrees in my life.” It was so hot, in fact, that his boot melted. “The heel burnt off, basically,” he elaborates. “It was like, ‘Come on Tarrant, we’ve got a schedule’. I went, ‘I know, but I’ve only got one shoe.” Exploring Morocco’s vast railway network sees Tarrant hop on a freight train on the way to Casablanca, ride a desert train south into the Sahara and even help workers to clear sand off the tracks. How challenging was this particular journey, considering the blistering heat (aside from footwear issues of course)? “We were working quite well. Mike, the cameraman, and I were sort of getting it done,” Tarrant recalls. “But we were just slow; everything was ponderous. “Everything I said, I had to speak very carefully and think, ‘What am I saying next?’”
Viewers will also see Tarrant roll in and out of fascinating places, such as Estonia, Israel and Jordan, embracing some “really uncomfy” travelling on little sleep. Considering he suffered a stroke in 2014, while flying to Heathrow from Bangkok, does he have to tell himself to slow down sometimes?
“I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I kind of have (slowed down)”, maintains Tarrant, who was rushed to hospital following the stroke and has since made a full recovery.
“You know, I’m not an idiot, I want to live. I was lucky. It (the stroke) was terrifying. I honestly thought I was going to die on that plane. It was the scariest — easily the scariest — moment of my life.”
The frank TV personality continues: “I don’t work as hard. I worked so hard for so many years, and I thought, ‘What the hell did I do that for?’”
When it comes to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Tarrant rules out a return.
“I don’t think you should ever go back,” he declares. “I definitely wouldn’t do it.”
Does he think the show would be too expensive to remake now?
“For loads of people, Millionaire absolutely changed their whole life. It was huge, but you can’t go back and call it, ‘Who Wants To Win 50 Quid?’ You can’t do it. It’s stuck with that title and I think that’s the problem.”
Tarrant says he’s “very proud” of his time hosting the much-loved telly quiz. “I’ve had a great life working, I’ve really enjoyed stuff, but Millionaire was amazing.” Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys, Channel 5, Monday, 9pm
SAND MAN: Chris and workers clearing a path for the desert train in the sweltering heat of Morocco